Thursday 05 October 2017, 17:14

Saif Khalid, Iraq's beating heart

  • Khalid won the AFC Championship at the U-14 and U-16 level

  • He is a key member of the Iraqi U-17 team and wears the captain’s armband

  • Nashat Akram is his role model on the pitch, and he very much admires Spain's Xavi

"We’re confident about the battle ahead, and we're ready to show our abilities to the world and go all the way in this tournament." The words of a vastly experienced veteran you might think? In fact, they are from Saif Khalid, captain of Iraq's U-17 team, who was speaking to after a training session in Kolkata in preparation for his side's opening game in Group F against Mexico on Sunday at the FIFA U-17 World Cup India 2017.

Khalid has been captain of the Iraqi national team since its formation about two years ago. With a strong personality on the pitch, keen sporting values, and the confidence of his team-mates, it is no surprise that coach Qahtan Jathir saw in him the attributes needed to be both a skipper and a leader.

Crucial opening game Asked about the importance of his side’s opening fixture against Mexico, Khalid said: "We realise that our competitors in the group have considerable football experience and history. Mexico are former winners of this title and are always in contention, which means we’ll need to work even harder. Taking something from this game will open the door to qualifying for the next round. We're here to compete, not just to play, and we want to show it."

A role model on the pitch Khalid plays a key part in executing team tactics, being usually deployed as a box-to-box midfielder and a playmaker. He is, therefore, his team’s engine, with some observers comparing him to former Iraq international Nashat Akram.

"Akram is my role model in Iraqi football," Khalid explained. "It was Iraq's participation in the 2007 AFC Asian Cup that opened my eyes to football. I have very good memories of that tournament, which we won. In that competition, Nashat's performances were unforgettable. He became my role model and I want to follow in his footsteps.

"On the international stage, I love Xavi, who redefined the personality and performance of the playmaker as someone who can really orchestrate proceedings and get team-mates in on goal much faster. He's a great player. I was happy he could watch us playing in the qualifiers in Qatar," Khalid added.

Did you know?

  • Saif Khalid began playing football at the age of four before joining local academies to develop his skills

  • He currently plays his club football with Al-Talaba and was competing at U-13 level when he was only 10

  • He helped the Lions of Mesopotamia win the inaugural AFC U-14 Championship, held in Iran, in 2014

Nominations This will be Iraq's second participation at the U-17 World Cup. The first was in the United Arab Emirates in 2013 when they were eliminated in the first round without a point. And while history might suggest Iraq will struggle to compete for the title in India, the young captain sees that as a challenge. "Yes, we know this," he said. "We're used to it. In the preliminaries two years ago, we defied expectations against good competitors, and we went into the 2016 AFC U-16 Championship with no one tipping us to reach even the quarter-final.

"These predictions are only theoretical. We receive orders from the coach and work as a team or even as a family to prove the projections wrong. We went to India for the AFC Championship intent on first securing a ticket to the World Cup. Once we’d done that, we then went on to win the title. I believe we proved to ourselves that through hard work, we can do the impossible. We're determined to repeat this."

Return to India As well as the hosts, Iraq must also be delighted that the U-17 World Cup is being held in India, where they claimed the AFC U-16 title after an epic performance.

"I believe we're used to playing here now," said Khalid. "We battled through a tough competition last year and won the title, as well as the Fair Play Award. My team-mate Mohammed Dawood also won the best player award and was the tournament's top scorer. It was a perfect conclusion. Today, we return to India already familiar with the atmosphere and the nature of this country. This will certainly help."